What was ordinary life like in the first century?

Bruce Longenecker is Professor of Christian Origins and W. W. Melton Chair of Religion at Baylor University, Waco, Texas. He has a long-standing interest in the cultural context of the early Christian movement, and has just published In Stone and Story, an exploration of the Roman world of the first century, and how Christian faith engaged with, related to and contrasted with the world around it. I recently interviewed Bruce about his research and the book.

IP: What was it that got you interested in the whole area of the ‘material culture’ of the ancient world? And why Pompeii in particular?

BL: I began to take a serious interest in Pompeii and Herculaneum after the publication of my 2010 book, Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty, and the Greco-Roman World. In that book, I studied economic structures of the Roman world at macro-level altitudes. From there I wanted to look at things from more of a ground-level point of view — analyzing how a micro-level approach might help to shed light on the rise of early Christianity by using a particular location’s economic life as an interpretative filter. I wondered whether a close study of the realities of ordinary people would help us to reframe our questions about the rise of early Christianity. Pompeii and Herculaneum were ideally suited as testing grounds for that exercise.

Once I got started exploring those ancient sites, I found it impossible to pull out — a bit akin to Alice going down the rabbit hole. There is simply something intoxicating about entering the first-century world of these two incredible, almost surreal, sites.

IP: Why do you think that studying the material culture of the ancient world is so important for readers of the Bible?

BL: The study of ancient material culture helps us to see things in fresh light, opening up new angles of vision on the import of ancient texts. There are, of course, other ways to read texts than through the filter of ancient material culture, but so much of what we do in the study of the Bible is based on the view that a text’s historical context sheds important light on how a text may have been read by its earliest audiences.

Studying other texts of the time often contributes to this goal, of course. For instance, when studying texts of the New Testament, invaluable resources present themselves in the texts of Judean (or Jewish) and non-Judean Greco-Roman authors. But these texts are usually composed by a culture’s elite, with elite filters informing a text’s view of the world.

Exploring material artifacts, however, can often supplement that elite filter by opening up the vast and multifaceted world of the sub-elites — precisely the kinds of people among whom the “good news” of the early Jesus-movement got its primary footholds. Pompeii and Herculaneum open up that world for us, helping us to refine our perceptions of how that “good news” might have slowly seeped into the crevasses of the Roman world. Fortunately for us, archaeologists have been preparing the way for over two hundred years, so the Vesuvian resources are just waiting to be harvested for the study of early Christianity.

IP: In your own research for this book, did you sense the world of the first century as mostly strange from us—or mostly easy to relate to?

BL: A bit of both. Often a single phenomenon would have both strange and familiar aspects to it. For instance, people of Pompeii and Herculaneum were immersed in a world of status-capture (as illustrated throughout In Stone and Story). I think the same is true for us today in many ways, and in virtually any culture I have ever encountered. But the status culture of the first-century Roman world was one embedded in structures of polytheism (among other things), and in that regard it seems quiet foreign.

Or to take another example, the graffiti on the walls of Pompeii are often about love (as illustrated in chapter 1 of In Stone and Story), and they often capture sentiments that would be quite at home in the twenty-first century Western world. But often love would blossom among people who were enslaved and whose lives were otherwise not their own to determine. Their love was often “vetoed” by their masters, in a way quite foreign to Western cultures today.

Or another — family ties. Ties among family members seem often to have been quite strong, as is often the case today. But those ties were configured along trajectories very different from ones familiar to many of us today — such as eligible women being married at roughly the age of 13–14 in what were often little more than arranged marriages between households, with these young females taking on the role of the matriarch of a household that she was inserted into, and facing the very real possibility of dying in childbirth. These and more permutations give the dynamics of family ties quite a different character to the notion of family ties that we might have today.

Even more, those ties were seen to transcend death in some ways, with people feeling like they could (and should) maintain some connections with departed family members — a sentiment quite foreign to many forms of mainstream Western culture today.

It is often these kinds of phenomenon, which include both familiar and unfamiliar aspects, that prove to be most fascinating, precisely because they combine both the familiar and the unfamiliar.

IP: One of your major sections in the book is an overview of religion and belief. What issues does this exploration throw up into strongest relief in the belief of the earliest Christians?

BL: Bringing monotheism to the gentile world was a huge initiative. It was also enormously countercultural. As a consequence, the reframing of temple and sacrificial imagery was a very significant project in the discourse of early Jesus-followers. In the process, temple and sacrifice became infused with ethical discourse in a way that outstripped comparable discourse of the time, with the corporate life of Jesus-followers becoming the locus for refracted imageries of temple and sacrifice.

Similarly, the mystery deities (in the town of Pompeii, these were especially Isis and Bacchus) were thought to be deities who met their devotees in close bonds of relationality, bolstering their life in the present and, as some suspected, opening up the way to the afterlife. Proponents of the “good news” of the early Jesus-movement sometimes articulated their message in ways that allowed resonances with those mystery deities to be heard – both by way of comparison and contrast.

IP: In the book, you include some quite surprising observations— for example, I was struck by your comments on the high levels of literacy amongst women who managed businesses. What did you find most surprising—and what do you think will surprise your readers?

BL: If I could highlight just two things that struck me (and there’s a whole book full of them), they would be these. First, people in the Greco-Roman world considered phenomena that we would think of as being simply “material” to actually have a “spiritual” component to them. For instance, neighborhoods had their own spiritual force; the same was true for colonies, residences and workshops — these all had their own spiritual identities. As I demonstrate in In Stone and Story, this ancient worldview helps to inform quite a number of New Testament texts. To take just one example, a passage like Philippians 4:23 reads best in this light: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with the spirit that is among you all.”

Second, it struck me that first-century urbanites in the Roman world could so easily have interpreted the “memorial” of Jesus’s last supper in relation to the vast number of memorials of the dead in tomb monuments that were adorned specifically to advertise the essence of a person’s accomplishments in life. Whereas the memorials of the Roman world advertised the many achievements of the great and powerful, the memorial of the Lord’s Supper encapsulated the “crux” of his own identity — a pretty powerful memorial, enacted by his followers “until he comes.”

IP: You draw out very helpfully some of the implications of early Christian faith for social relations, including slavery. How significant do you think the critique in the NT is of the basic assumptions of slavery in the Roman world?

BL: There is a strong denunciation of slavery in Revelation 18:13. When read in its literary context, that verse depicts slavery as embedded within a “satanically enlivened” economic system. But there aren’t any New Testament voices that explicitly call for the eradication of slavery (much to our modern disappointment). Since slavery was like the electricity of the Roman world, most early Jesus-followers seem simply to have taken slavery for granted, like the air that they breathed.

But even though some New Testament authors may have expected Jesus-followers to be living largely within the structures of their world, they also seem to have imagined that relationships within Jesus-groups would be reframed and redefined as a consequence of their devotion to an exalted Lord who does things differently. It is not hard to imagine that for some slaves, their association with Jesus-groups might have been one of the best parts of their week.

IP: What did you most enjoy about this project and the writing of the book?

BL: I enjoyed (and still enjoy) the way a “big picture” emerges from a variety of close-up snapshots on particular issues. When these explorations of individual issues are bundled together, they form a collage of the identity of early Christianity as it took shape within the Roman world.

And another thing that made the production side of things so rewarding is the fantastic job that Baker Academic did with the book and with the internet teaching resources that have been brought alongside of it. When I was pitching the book to various publishers, it was Baker Academic that proposed that the images in the book should be displayed in color and that the book should be supported with a full range of internet support material for classroom and discussion group usage. I think I said something like, “You had me at ‘color’!” And now the book is supported by eSources resources, which includes (1) a chapter-by-chapter bank of about 135 further color photos available to anyone, with explanations as to the significance of the photos in relation to the discussions within the book, and (2) a chapter-by-chapter bank of quiz questions and classroom activities, as well as two banks of test questions.

This is a helpful way of enabling teachers who may not be experts in the field to operate a successful course from the start. So it is really rewarding to think that this book might go on to have a stimulating life among groups of people who want to explore the main contours of how early Christianity emerged within the Roman world.

Thank you Ian!

IP: Thank you very much Bruce!

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3 thoughts on “What was ordinary life like in the first century?”

  1. Fascinating and enlightening. My interest is relational and sociological and the focus on sharing the gospel in a culturally relevant manner. The OT has a strong focus on “Geographical Spirits” as well which explains some of the battles between Israel and tribes. I expect we have them today also.

  2. I look forward to reading this. And no to take away from this book, but I would also recommend “Reading Romans in Pompeii” By: Peter Oakes https://www.christianbook.com/reading-romans-in-pompeii/peter-oakes/9781451476675/pd/476675
    Its a wee bit dry in style, but got fascinating insights. He takes a street in pompei and looks at what if the church was made up of those people (e.g. the slave girl pimped out by the publican). What does Romans say to her? This is a good adjunct to what Bruce is talking about.


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